A conversation with New York-based artist and ceremonialist Georgia Wall.
Image: Georgia Wall, Ceremony to Counter Capitalism, 7/7/2020. Full info on ceremony at the end of interview.
Nacre: To begin, I like to ask people to describe themselves, instead of using a staple bio at the intro. That said, I really liked the text on your site. It came across as very clear in your interests and intentions. Maybe you could start by talking about how you came to be a ceremonialist…
Georgia Wall: As far as my origin story so to speak, I feel like my whole life has been about creating rituals. I grew up in a progressive liberal family, in New York City, but with no religion or spirituality at all. And it was something that I think I always wanted, I always craved ritual. The most significant foundational moment was probably when, being curious about what happened after death, I asked my mother, and she had said “whatever you believe happens”. So as a child, I created a lot of meaning making rituals, and a theory of what happens when we die which I recorded on a cassette. Already when I was in highschool, I started working with performance and dance. Later, I majored in visual art at Oberlin, and got a performance graduate degree from The Art Institute of Chicago following that. I used to do these Unseen Performances, done in non-traditional places and witnessed by one participant at a time. I would do the exact same performance for each different person, and whoever witnessed it, would then go and describe what they have seen for the camera. Then I would take these narratives and assemble them into a new video piece. Which would be a retelling of this event that happened. And the interest there was in both, the process of creating a sort of sacred and intimate place for the witnessing person, but also in staying very attuned to the meaning-making, to how the people are involved in the meaning-making process, how it’s created. The inciting impulse was to have the participants translate what they have seen, then followed by another act of translation, of me editing it. And in my current ceremony work, that’s also what I am focused on: the meaning making, through ritual. Back in New York after graduate school I began teaching art. In teaching children I am also involved in helping them realize they have agency in the meaning making. That has been extremely inspiring and comforting, I guess. Then one day in 2018, I literally woke up in the middle of the night and I thought: “I need to be a ceremonialist”. It came to me as an aha moment, but I also do think that I have already been doing that all along. I have been making ceremonies for my family and friends for years. When my parents moved out of our old apartment where we grew up, I made a ceremony. When my grandmother passed away I made a ceremony, on New Years, I would make ceremonies for my friends… So it was more just a reframing, what has been happening, throughout my childhood, in my art and teaching, into a more formal offering and practice.
N: This idea, or this type of social practice, in many ways highlights a sense of loss that is present, specifically, in the atomized post-industrial society. Having lived in the States, and now based in Germany, I am very aware how much more commonplace the new age practices are in the US, like astrology, and so on, across all social spectrums. As compared to more rationalist European self-presentation, or still heavily Christianized practices and rituals, here in Germany and many other parts of Europe, influencing holidays, calendar, and community structures. The difference that I see with your work and the text on your site, that I mentioned before, is that the text is written with self-awareness of your position, versus so much of the borrowed ritual-making that’s typical to the US landscape. It read to me as a sincere statement and not virtue signaling either, which is something else I see often today. To me it has to do with the packaging and aesthetics of the new evolving contemporary rituals, but also the acknowledgement. You, for example, say “as a white woman living on a stolen land…”. What is your relationship to these topics of loss, aesthetic presentation, and your identity in relation to your work? Have you been criticized for your ritual work?
GW: I am yet to be criticized, but I am sure I will be… And… I am curious, you know, it’s probably different for example for you as a white woman from Eastern Europe. It is a different relationship to the loss that you mention. But I am aware of my sense of loss brought up here in the US, and in my lack of connection to my ancestors and to the traditions of the land that I came from. I don’t live on that land. And I think that’s a common experience especially amongst atheist Americans of a certain class. That’s where I think a lot the appropriative impulses come from. I have been a part of the wellness community in some form for a while, and I have observed a lot of practices that don’t feel right. But I am also really aware of that desire to turn to astrology, or rituals, and the need to fill some kind of void, and I am curious what that is. Every culture ultimately has rituals and ceremonies. I guess you could be reconnecting to some kind of traditions, but I am more curious of how we create new ones, rooted in personal and lived experiences.
N: How do you structure it, the preliminary and then actual ceremony steps in your work?
GW: It starts with a grounding meditation with the person I am working on the ceremony with, just to return to our bodies. And then, I work with very different kinds of people. Some know exactly what they want to acknowledge in the ceremony, or what the ceremony is for, and then I also work with people, who have a life moment, where they need something, to frame it or get some clarity. And it’s a slightly different process but the conversation in both cases is pretty open ended. I ask a lot of questions. I take notice of how the person is speaking. I have realized that even in the conversation some people may be very rooted in relationships, and some people talk more spatially, or objects and tangible things will come through the conversation. I listen to how the person tells their story, what their anchors are. For example, I did a ceremony for someone who was leaving a relationship, and she talked a lot about the architecture of their shared home, that she lived in, with that partner. So the ceremony became about that space, and there was a part that happened at a specific location inside the apartment, then at a threshold, like a window. I compose from the material that I am getting and the content of the ceremony is formed through the way it’s being shared and articulated. I did a ceremony with another woman which was entirely silent, non-verbal, because she felt like she spent too much in that language-based, or cerebral space. And then there are other ceremonies, that are the opposite, all texts. For all of them, the process is very collaborative, so I am only helping with the composing. When generating, it is with the person I am doing the ceremony for. I hope to give them back the ceremony in a container that they can then use. I have worked within more officially marked events such as solstice, equinox, or weddings, birthdays, but I am more interested in these other moments that are traditionally unmarked, some kind of personal shifts. There are a lot of formative things that happened to us in moments that are not culturally agreed upon, or defined, and these moments feel like an exciting place to start to work from and imagine ceremonies for.
N: Do you usually stay in touch with the people for whom you created the ceremonies?
GW: Yes I have stayed in touch with some. The first couple of people I worked with were people I knew, and then it was friends of friends, and now I have started to work with people I don’t have any connection to, and I am yet to have a bad experience. I really love working with everyone I work with. It feels like a very privileged interaction with another human being. I am an introvert, but when I get to talk to people in this way, it is hard not to love who you are speaking to.
N: There isn’t a lot of opportunity for an intimate conversation in a secular sector today, unless you have that kind of relationships in your life with friends, but friendships can also be limited in terms of what can be discussed, and how often, and so on. There is therapy, of course. Or hairdressers! I think they often provide social services, beautifying but also listening to people’s stories. But in terms of whatever is summed up under “new age practices”, has as much to do with the sense of loss (and thus having to borrow from other cultures) of the person who is doing the ritual and their need to connect by performing the ritual, as with the receiver of the “treatment”.
GW: I think a lot about grief, I know you said loss, but I do think it is both, the loss and grief, that are two very key components of the work that I am doing. Frences Weller talks about the gates of grief, losing a place or a person you loved, then there’s estrangement from parts of yourself that you have denied, a collective grief of humanity and the world that you know, estrangement from ancestors. There are all these other processes of grief that we don’t think about, but are always present. Loss and grief is so big, and so profound, that if we start thinking about it more, we could find exciting ways to work with it. Not even heal it. Because, it’s kind of a part of the condition of living, I think.
N: Given that in majority of the discussion, political, philosophical, in media and academia, that touch on deterritorialization and criticism of acceleration and capitalism, the spiritual is largely left out, it seems natural to me that artists would step into this intermediate space. I was in a club here in Berlin last year for a sort of hybrid lecture and then a party, and in this lecture the performance artist/ DJ said (they were white, American, I don’t remember their name), “artist are like shamans”, and then they immediately felt that they needed to self-correct as if that statement necessarily is appropriative… What do you think about the idea of an artist as a shaman?
GW: Yes, I think despite the ritualistic practices belonging to every culture. It is the flattened construction of whiteness that has this embedded loss of understanding, of what a shaman is like, who they are, what they do. We have lost an orientation to what that would be like, that is rooted in a non-appropriative identity. So it’s a very interesting question, to which I don’t think I know the answer. I also think a lot about how people who become artists all have something in common, but may be from different lineages so to speak. And that, had our current society been constructed differently, there may have been more opportunities for artists to be who we are. Some artists may be shamans, or some artists are inventors, and it has nothing to do with what you are producing. I don’t know if I can pinpoint it, I think there are artists that are scholars, shamans, healers, and… I don’t know how we end up as artists. I think maybe there isn’t enough flexibility in the other spheres… It’s like you don’t want to be in a lab, but you want to be a scientist… so you end up as an artist. I think that I am from a lineage of a teacher. Shaman is a bit of a guru, and I think of myself in ceremony work as more of a guide and facilitator, which I think is more in line with a teacher archetype.
N: I suppose that would also depend on how you relate to teaching. Some teachers do liken themselves to, or behave as, a guru. Historically though, shamans were not necessarily gurus. Their work and position inside of a group was closely related to other dynamics that were very site-specific. Sometimes shaman’s work was related to chiefdom, power. Sometimes they were thought to be possessed by spirits, mediators between this and other worlds, or between the humans and greater powers. Sometimes they were the link to the natural world and it’s conditions, like weather, crop yield, health, etc. They were not always liked, often they were feared for their powers and, sometimes, killed.
And continuing that thought, I was thinking, if we are really presently reconsidering how we, as humans, are participating in the world, meaning on material and spiritual level… and if we think of some of the indeginous perspectives, or OOO, or Tsiolkovsky’s monism, as related to the intelligence of all matter… Then of course, not in a way of nostalgia or any kind of return to anything, it would make sense that art would reorient or recalibrate itself to this new direction of thought. However, evidently, even as the art sphere appears to be rhetorically engaged with these ideas, it is still focused on collections, sales, or creating objects of trade. We still struggle with how to apply these ideas to our present day conditions.
GW: What you had said about my text earlier. You said what I wrote on my site felt sincere, and I thought, ha! Yes it is! Sincerity… I feel like that’s what I love, and… I think maybe, sincerity, it is coming back in style, but it isn’t mainstream. Sincerity when you go to spiritual realms to some degree is necessary. Or… I don’t know if that’s true, I’m thinking out loud.
N: Yes sincerity feels very much like a new expectation of discourse, and I supposed it feels new, given that politically and professionally so much of what is being said is always heavily coded. Listening to institutional speech in particular, at the moment like the Pandemic, just seems completely impossible to accept or digest. It is a kind of syntaxis that is strategically evasive, appearing to all possible interpretations and acknowledging nothing at all. It exists, both in government, but also in art context, in my experience.
GW: Yeah completely, and I think then it’s really hard to take action, out of this place, of insincerity. One would need clarity to move through. Obfuscation can keep us exactly where we are, systemically. These are physical things happening in a physical world. There is unavoidable clarity when people are dying, are ill. There is a lot of clarity if you go to many of New York City schools, in those rooms, there it is.
N: I wrote down: what does it mean to be an agent of sincerity? One always self-nominates for this “position”, and it’s dubious. In the sense that, let’s say, I have delegated myself to some kind of category along those lines. I keep asking a lot of questions from institutions and people, and responses often feel indexical. Highly pressured sensitive topics or noble pursuits, are frequently used for personal gain. This changes exactly nothing about the system. And, even if I am asking something that’s not being asked, I still have to think about my desire to ask the question, my motives, intentions. Not even for moralistic but for self-awareness sake, since purity isn’t something I am interested in. And I guess my approach to it is to stay open, be constantly engaged with public conversation, and have it be a horizontal rather than vertical hierarchical project of knowledge… But more often than not, it is an unwelcome approach.
(Phone crashes, and with it, hotspot internet crashes, I still don’t have WiFi at the new address, we restart)
…Just to get back to the name of the book you mentioned earlier, what was the name?
GW: It’s called “The Wild Edge Of Sorrow” by Francis Weller, I will say though that he is an older white guy, and talks about grief ceremonies, there is some appropriative stuff in there. But I do find his idea of the gates of grief very useful. He talks about sorrow as a condition we always step in and out of. It’s maybe taken from Buddhism, this idea of suffering that’s woven into the fabric of living.
N: It makes me think of antidepressants. In Belarus, where I grew up, for example, therapy was not accepted as a tool for everyday living, so that’s a negative. But on the positive side there wasn’t mass-medicatign approach in place, as in the States, for example. Then again, on the negative side, there’s rampant alcoholism in Eastern Europe, specifically Belarus, so self-medication instead of prescription medication. It makes me think of these things having to do with positivism, having to appear as positive against all structural odds. The sadness (let alone anger) seems still so far away as an acceptable condition, or emotion, and is very far away from being considered as a fruitful tool to understanding renegotiation, as a constant condition of shared life.
GW: The acceptance of sorrow as a condition of life would also alleviate the pressure of having to “know” why you are sad. The reason. That idea that you’re immediately put on antidepressants, because you can’t pin-point the reason, as it exists in America. And I am not against medication for specific conditions of course. But a lot of us feel sad. I like to describe myself as melancholic. I am just sad. But I also experience great joy. When I notice I don’t have a reason to be sad, I also think, there is so much going on around me in the world that I am not sure how I wouldn’t be sad. I don’t think I can, or would want to change that. It is one of the ways I feel connected to the rest of humanity. It seems like a common language. Until we have all our basic needs met, I don’t know how sorrow wouldn’t be a part of the experience of being alive. It is a tool for action and reflection, material to make from. There are constructive ways of working with sorrow. I am not going to pretend like I know what all of them are. But I think art-making is, and substance abuse isn’t. Activism is, crying is.
N: I think rituals of acknowledgement seem like an important practice, as a counter to the velocity of information today. It’s like a pause, or something I think that can be better expressed through the French word ‘resentir’, to feel (sentir), it rings slightly different then ‘feel’ in English, something like feel-through, where the addition of re- is meant to express an intensive force (in etymology).
Next, I wanted to ask if you could talk about materiality and aesthetics of the ceremonies, how they are arrived at.
GW: Something I think about a lot, is how the aesthetic experience of moments of loss, and grief can be created, or given space. So often we culturally agree on moments when we come together to create a ceremony for a birthday, a graduation, a wedding. And it’s all of these happy accomplishment moments. On the other hand there is little for the opposite end… How do we frame shame, or doubt, or sorrow? And hold them with intention, with aesthetics, beauty, with language that is generative? How can we honor these parts that come up and feel undeserving of that kind of care? Sadness can be physical, materially manifested. Right now it is also on a scale that is hard to avoid. I am working with a woman who has lost her daughter to COVID, her daughter was based in New York, and was 34. Her ashes are in Brooklyn, and her mother is in the Midwest. And it is very hard to hold this space between them. I am trying to figure out how to work with this, and it’s a very complicated experience. But I want to think of how ceremony can rearticulate our material experience, reconnect us to the material plane.
N: Yeah, like touch, haptic connection…
GW: Or creating a space in your home where you go, intentionally, to do the work of grieving. In her experience it is obviously 24 hours a day, but how do we make an object or space that can be a part of processing for smaller scale sorrow, or daily experiences too. And I think it should be beautiful, whatever that means to the person.
N: In your statement you also say that “you don’t come with the sage or crystals”, which of course refers to the appropriative but also generic practice that presently denotes a certain kind of secular spirituality.
GW: I try not to come with anything at all, the conversation should really dictate what happens. I guess we could say I have been known to use candles. I do usually light a candle at the beginning, that could be said to be a common thing.
N: We were planning to do something for the Journal, something like a ceremony. I was suggesting an exorcism of capitalism. I don’t know what form it could take…
GW: I was thinking since we spoke so much about loss in the conversation, it can be related to what we feel like we are losing within the conditions of capitalism.
N: I think before that I said – eulogy – when we first emailed, and then… Did I just say exorcism? Yeah I guess that makes sense, since I don’t have the evidence that it has passed on, as I would have to, for a eulogy. It’s still here.
GW: You should think about what you would like to call it, and I can be a witness to that maybe. In my ceremony process, I like to listen to what arises and that helps me to create the composition, because if I am too involved it is all my ideas and theories. And I like to stay in the position of more of a witness. We don’t have to prepare anything. I would like for us to just arrive and see what happens in the moment, as a process.
The ceremony “to counter capitalism” took place on 7/7/2020, made in conversation between Georgia and I, and in a concert with several people in different locations globally joining us on the day at the time convenient to them (not synced).
During the ceremony, through the process of doing the meditation walk, I had come to realize that the ceremony’s request for documentation that we originally had, was counter intuitive, and felt like a hindrance to the action, the production aspect of it, the concern with output. More so, it seemed like an outgrowth of a habit, that when putting together the invitation text, we did not consider deeply. The time spent thinking of the prompted questions and the process was more interesting, then making an output. It becomes even more interesting when it is not documented, but rather embedded in life.
We thank everyone who took part!
Please feel free to adopt and perform this ceremony whenever and wherever you are.